Why? And should that change? I've been wondering over the last week or so whether I should migrate to an e-reader.
1984-ish: My brother and I buy a Commodore 64, disk drive, and printer. We begin playing an Infocom text-only adventure, Deadline. It's complicated, so we decide to set the game to print every interaction so that we can review it later. Soon we run out of paper.Transitioning from print to digital was not intuitive. Those of us who went through it thought that a printer was a vital accessory: The computer was where you produced a text, but paper was where you composed it (in longhand), edited it (sometimes on a printout), and shared it (not just out of preference, but also necessity: few friends had a C64, let alone a disk drive or modem). But there were other reasons to use paper.
1986-ish: I write a report for high school in longhand. My mother types up the final version on a dedicated word processor.
1989: Working on my undergraduate degree in computer science, I draft programs on paper, type them into the computer, then try to compile them. At the end of a session, I print out the code and hand-edit it. I have to. The screen only shows 80 characters per line and only 24 lines, so I can't get a panoramic view. With a printout, I can lay out several pages, compare different parts of the code, and see how they relate. Also, the printout is much more portable than the computers in the university computer lab - I haven't bought my own computer yet. When I explain my process to an experienced programmer, he says, "Oh, you can't compose on glass?"1990: I get a home computer and a home copy of Borland's Turbo C Integrated Developer Environment. It changes everything. Now I can split the window and look at code at two different places simultaneously. I can search for unique identifiers too. I can also try out code more rapidly. I don't have a home printer, although I do print out code at school - more occasionally.
Access is a big deal, but so is text density. You simply can't fit much text on an 80x24 screen, and it's very hard to remember the shape of the text you can't see. When you're used to relying on reading strategies based on a broad field of vision, and you lose that broad field of vision, you have to develop new strategies or new tools to compensate. The split screen and search were two such tools.
1994: I begin using Mosaic.1998: Working on my dissertation, I oscillate between printouts (which I heavily mark up at coffee shops and in my office) and the computer representation, which resides on my home hard drive and at least two 3.5" floppy disks.1998: I borrow a Palm Pilot and try the to do list, calendar, and notes. I begin to see the potential for microreading.2000: I'm playing Mario Kart with three other players in Lubbock. The screen shows four different viewpoints, one for each player. I have a hard enough time interpreting what's happening in my quadrant. But one of the other players easily watches the four screens simultaneously. He laughs as he launches a blue shell, then sees it pass through the other players' viewpoints to hit the one in the lead.
Tools aren't the only thing that can improve reading, of course, because human beings don't come off an assembly line. Human beings develop strategies for reading too. When I realized that my friend could pay attention to all four quadrants simultaneously, I realized that he had developed strategies that I couldn't realistically hope to develop. This made me feel old.
2000: After trying to take field notes in notebooks for a month, I buy a Palm Pilot and a collapsable keyboard, on which I take the rest of the field notes. I set up macros to speed up the process and I obtain a simple Palm-based database for managing participant information. (These data eventually become my second book.)2001: I encourage my students in the computer lab to save their work to a USB drive. One doesn't - instead, he simply mails the file to himself in Yahoo Mail, which is accessible anywhere. I am fascinated at what suddenly seems like an obvious solution.2002 or 2003: I use a small grant to buy a Sharp Zaurus, which runs Linux. I start outlining papers on it, but find that even with its greater screen density, it's too hard to get a sense of how the paper develops. I also get a copy of mysql running on it, which I use for formulating queries of my field notes.
Microreading is great for small screens. And we do a lot of microreading: to do lists, shopping lists, calendars, references. For sustained reading, though, I have trouble getting the hang of using the small screen. That wasn't for lack of trying. Meanwhile, more and more content was migrating online.
2007: Inspired by research on multiple monitors coming from Microsoft, I request and receive a second monitor. It helps tremendously. I start grading online.2008: I buy an Android phone and am frustrated that I can't edit Google Docs with it.2010: Android now allows Google Docs editing. I use it a little.2010: Apple releases the iPad. I am unimpressed. It's too big.2010: I finally buy an eBook, Phillip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent, for $9. It's 679 pages. I try to read it on my phone, and quickly realize that although I'm reading the words, I'm not retaining them. It feels like I'm reading through a straw. A week later, I find the same book at a used book store and purchase it for $2.
At this point, I have microreading down. I read an enormous amount of text through my phone. But when I try sustained reading on the phone, it eludes me. It's as if I'm still stuck in 1990, still trying to figure out the tools - or in 2000, realizing that I don't have the strategies to cope. Sure, I can add a monitor, but I realize that I'm trying to meet two opposing conditions: field of vision and mobility. Greater mobility means a smaller screen, which means a smaller field of vision, which means less sustained reading.
This would not be a big deal but for three things:
- I like mobility. I don't like hauling books around.
- I like tools. I want to use tools that will enrich my reading experience, such as search, and print books don't offer many new tools.
- I like strategies that improve reading. And part of me is worried that I'm missing out on strategies that will improve my reading - and that some may simply be beyond me, though they'll be intuitive to younger readers. That is, I begin to wonder if my reliance on print books is my version of the VCR my parents couldn't figure out how to program.
So that's where I am now. I'm interested in how others are dealing with the same issues. In particular, if you read ePubs:
- On what form factors do you read them? Laptop, tablet, dedicated reader, phone?
- What tools do you use to aid your ePubs reading? Search, highlighting, notes, other? Are some of these outside the ereader?
- What strategies do you use when reading ePubs? Do you combine them with other versions? Tackle different types or sections of readings on different form factors? Follow a nonlinear pattern when reading? Bring different expectations to ePubs?